Pirates of the Indian Ocean, thieves in the Red Sea and Egyptian bazaars on the Suez Canal: Travelling from Malaysia to Germany with cargo ship MV Hatsu Courage


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Oceans and Seas » Indian » Red Sea
July 2nd 2012
Published: July 2nd 2012
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I must have been a nomad in one of my past lives. Over the last five years, I have moved locations and countries more than other people change socks, and I rarely grow tired of it. It’s like in the film ‘Chocolat’, when Juliette Binoche breaks up her tents every time the winds start blowing again. After a few months in one place, I become restless – and every time I get excited about what needs to be done. I love to dispose of things, plan seemingly impossible trips through the world’s oceans and terrains, and overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of me and the road. I even love all the confusion and uncertainty that come with cargo ship travel. It all invigorates me.

This time, as we were getting ready to leave Australia, it was more than just me packing my few belongings and hitting the road. We had to sell my partner Sameer’s car, his possessions, get visas and medical certificates for him. It was at breakneck speed, even with two people working on it, and pretty stressful. On the day of departure, we were still disposing of household items and packing boxes way past the time when we had to hand in the key to our letting agents. Thankfully, we had a spare key and overstayed our welcome for a few hours.

Finally, laden with around 100kg of luggage, much of it reams of Ayurvedic books including the epic four-volume Charaka Samhita, we made our way to Gold Coast Airport. We’d booked an overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from which our cargo ship was due to leave the next day. The trick was to get our overweight luggage past check-in. It only worked partially. We had to pay 11kg excess luggage – but had at least twice that in our hand luggage. Thankfully, this part worked, though the lady at security, upon lifting Sameer’s backpack filled with books, exclaimed indignantly: ‘Jesus Christ! What’s in there?’ Once in Kuala Lumpur, I had to get past immigration with my Italian passport that was strictly only for European use, as my German passport was due to expire. Thankfully, the officer didn’t pick up on it and I was finally out of Australia for good.

We spent a nice day in Port Kelang, the harbour town from which our vessel would depart. It has an awesome vegan, organic restaurant & shop called BMS Organics with the most delicious dishes. They also have free brochures with recipes and lifestyle tips, helping people to lead healthier lives. I was most impressed. It was stiflingly hot outside, so after lunch we dragged ourselves to a nearby shopping mall and decided to get haircuts. Here, for a mere $12, I must have had the best hairdressing experience of my life. First of all, in Malaysia (or at least in this salon), they cut long hair dry, without washing it first. ‘Ah, it’s all the same’, said the male hairdresser, as he vigorously chopped away at my hair. I shifted around anxiously on my chair as he cut seemingly indiscriminate chunks from my long locks. But surprisingly, the result looked rather good. After the cut, a young woman sensuously massaged shampoo into my hair and scalp for about fifteen minutes, and then led me to the most comfortable armchair in the world to wash it out. Divine!

Following the theme of relaxation, we went to have a massage. I had a wonderful reflexology foot massage, while Sameer decided on a Thai massage and was promptly offered something called
‘massage ping-pong’ by his middle-aged therapist. Without knowing what it was, he declined. ‘Didn’t you at least ask her what it was?’ I asked. ‘No – it sounded dodgy’, he said. And so it was. We googled it later and found out that indeed, she had been offering him sexual services. Surprisingly, as the establishment didn't seem dodgy in the slightest!

Finally in deep slumber in our hotel that night, the phone rang at 2am. I grabbed it groggily. Who the hell could call us in the middle of the night in Malaysia? ‘Madam!’ somebody cried excitedly. ‘Madam, it’s the agent! Your vessel has just arrived at the port. Please be ready on standby at the reception at 3am.’

‘What?!’ I groaned, irritated. Surely he was joking. ‘But these ships always stay in the port for at least ten hours. Why’s there a need for us to go there now?’

There was, he insisted urgently. Immigration and formalities were strict in Malaysia, and we had to go to the port at once. Somebody would pick us up in an hour. Muttering curses under our breath we packed our bags and dragged ourselves to the lobby.

Finally, at 3.20am, a moustachioed Indian man strode purposefully into the hotel, clutching a briefcase in his right hand. ‘HAT-SU COURAGE!’ he cried out into the deserted lobby, as though offering wares in a bustling marketplace. When we caught his eye, he directed us towards a white van with an impatient tilt of his head. Once settled inside the van with our manifold suitcases, he drove off at breakneck speed with Hindi disco music blaring from the speakers. ‘Can I have your passports?’ he commanded in the middle of the motorway. Mr Mohan, so his name, was in control.

When we reached the big immigration building, we were asked to sit in a neon-lit waiting room. Mr Mohan galloped upstairs with his briefcase to handle the precarious immigration affair with authority. Meanwhile, Tawfiq, the agent who had woken us, strode into the building and exclaimed that he hadn’t slept for two days. We soon found out that this night-time action was only due to the agent’s work load, not because the ship wanted us on board in the middle of the night. As we later found out, even the Captain had been against it. ‘It would have been enough for you to come at midday’, he confirmed what I suspected all along.

We boarded MV Hatsu Courage at around 4.30am (the difficult immigration procedure having taken approximately fifteen minutes) and went back to sleep in our lovely, big cabin before we set sail at around 1pm. Later, we met the Captain and crew, and I was delighted to find that the Chief Cook, Second Officer and Bosun knew my good friend Rogelio Cartagena, Second Officer from MSC Ilona (a cargo ship I took two years ago) and who I am still in touch with.

This time, the journey to Germany would take three weeks, and take us via the Suez Canal. The route, leading through the Indian Ocean and past the Gulf of Aden, is notorious for pirate attacks. Pirates, mainly from Somalia, are approaching ships with skipper boats and climbing up to hijack them for ransom. They tend to be heavily armed and have also been known to kill crew members. Because of this, the ship increased security measures as soon as we reached the Indian Ocean. All doors were to be kept locked during the day, a curfew was imposed, watchmen were doubled and windows were blacked out so that at night no light could shine out into the ocean. In addition, big water hoses were installed all around the ship: should pirates attempt to climb it, the hoses were to be opened and large amounts of salt water would rush towards them.

Our passage through the dangerous area went fairly smoothly, though. Only one morning, near the Suez Canal, a suspicious boat was seen close to our ship on the radar. The Chief Mate called the Captain, and before anything happened, a military helicopter appeared and took charge of the situation. Another time, when we were at anchor the night before going through the Suez Canal, a robbery occurred. Somebody climbed up the vessel to the life raft and plundered it of tools. Nobody noticed until the next morning. ‘Egypt is very dangerous’, a crew member told us. ‘There’s always theft and trouble in Egypt.’ I couldn’t help wondering how desperate somebody has to be to climb up the wall of a huge cargo ship at night (certainly not without risk) for a few tools in a life raft.

Our transit through the Suez Canal was both exciting and amusing. We slowly started at 5am in a convoy of several ships who had been at anchor with us through the night. We appeared to be the first ship to go. We watched as the pilot came onto the ship by boat and climbed the wobbly gangway. Egyptian desert and city landscapes appeared to our left and right as we edged towards the sunrise. It was a beautiful morning and we felt invigorated.

The best part came after breakfast, though. We climbed down to Upper Deck for our daily morning walk, and were greeted by three bearded Egyptian men. They were the Suez Crew, who joins the vessel in case something happens, such as the ship coming too close to the edge of the canal. Crossing the Suez Canal is a costly affair: for our ship alone the passage is around 400.000 Euro, and the Suez Crew is part of the deal.

‘Come, come’, one of the bearded patriarchs exclaimed urgently. ‘Bazaar, here on ship!’ Believe it or not, outside their cabin on Upper Deck the Suez Crew had spread out abundant goods: Egyptian souvenirs, hand-painted papyrus rolls, stone slabs carved with Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, traditional clothing, T-shirts, fridge magnets, phone cards, shaving utensils, manicure sets and the list goes on. Fascinated, we looked at the display and bought a couple of beautiful papyrus rolls and a stone carving.

Of course, I wanted to know who these people were. After conclusion of the deal, I asked the oldest man where he was from, and a conversation ensued. He told me that he and his colleagues do this passage almost every day. They travel up the Suez Canal one way, and then the next day they come back with another ship. They don’t really have anything to do (apart from the electrician, who comes especially on board to switch on the Suez Canal search light – that’s his whole job in a day’s work), and so they make some extra money by selling Egyptian goods. The Filipino crew was grateful and bartered happily for phone cards and internet sticks.

Saed, so the name of our Suez Crew friend, warmed to us and offered us some flat bread made by his wife. When he saw that we liked it, he rushed into the cabin and got some fresh home-made goat’s cheese, a tomato and a green pepper. This together, he gestured, is delicious, and he insisted that we eat it. So we did, and he was right. The snack was truly wonderful.

The Suez Crew left at around 3pm with a small motor boat that had been tied to the side of our ship. The bosun lowered it from a rope and for a while it hung suspended in the air with our three heroes inside it. It was quite impressive. Then the boat touched the water, and they sped off waving.

The rest of our cargo ship trip was incredibly relaxing. We practiced yoga and meditation, read, watched movies, walked around the ship and wrote. Once again we were lucky and got vegetarian food from Chief Cook Huberto Ompoc – in contrast to the rest of the crew, who rarely even seemed to eat vegetables. But the food was pretty heavy and thus hard to digest – making it a bit like a reverse Panchakarma (Ayurvedic cleansing therapy). Forget fresh and wholesame, think frozen and tinned. But, it’s only temporary, and in my opinion, the benefits of cargo ship travel outweigh the costs.

After my third trip, cargo ships are still my favourite mode of transport. In a way, this type of travel is such an obscure niche, and yet bears so many wonders that only few people know about. I love gliding over the ocean and sleeping like a baby in the cradle rocked to sleep by gentle waves. To see only water around us for days on end is relaxing for mind and spirit. It’s so peaceful when you’re not bombarded with sensory overload all the time. Here, there’s no mobile phone reception, no internet, no sightseeing, and there is absolutely nothing to do. All the senses relax and a feeling of openness spreads through one’s being.

I’ve now completed my circumnavigation of the globe by cargo ship, but I’d definitely travel in this way again. I believe that, if you truly want to unwind, a cargo ship trip is just the ticket.

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